My Six Months as a Postgrad Digital Nomad in the UK

8th October 2017

I remember sitting in a lecture a few years ago and thinking to myself; ‘I really don’t need to be here, I could have watched this lecture online and read the textbook.’ I began to wonder where my tuition fees were being spent, and whether we actually get our money’s worth for our degrees.

So when it came to choosing a Masters programme, I spent a lot of time investigating different options. I was shocked to discover that online programmes were sometimes £3,000 cheaper than their campus based equivalents. Indeed, my full time MA in Creative Writing (via Distance Learning) from Teesside University, was nearly half the price of similar campus based courses at other universities. Up until that point, I had never imagined myself doing an online degree. However, I’d been an admirer of the digital nomad lifestyle and realised I had the opportunity to combine studying with this unique experience.

For those who haven’t come across the phrase before, a digital nomad (DN) is someone that is location independent and can work or study from anywhere in the world. As the ‘nomad’ term implies, travel is a big part of the experience. The main requirement is that their chosen destination has decent internet access. People can work or study remotely from just about anywhere nowadays.

Norwich – the first UNESCO City of Literature in the UK.

I had notions of travelling to a different European country each month (via train of course, to reduce my carbon footprint). However, with a quick comparison between my savings and the potential costs of that plan, it became apparent that this wouldn’t be feasible. In addition, I was told by the Student Loans Company (SLC), that I wouldn’t be eligible for funding if I studied outside the country, so that put an end to that idea.

Instead I looked more locally in the UK. I decided I would try spend 6 months in Norwich, because it is a city which has produced some fantastic authors (including Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, the winner of the 2017 Nobel prize in literature. Both of these authors studied at UEA). Norwich was also the first UNESCO City of Literature in the UK. There is a good literary vibe in the city, and prominent authors often visit UEA or Writers’ Centre Norwich to give talks.

I intended to take advantage of SCONUL, which gives students access to university libraries across the country, and apply to use UEA’s library (to see if you’re eligible for SCONUL, visit their website). I set this up within around two weeks, and found accommodation close to UEA. I was also able to pay an Associate Membership fee to join their student union, which then enabled me to join a few clubs and societies. Another great thing about universities like UEA, is that you don’t need to be a student to join their gym. I was fortunate enough to meet a group of Masters students who invited me to their social events. The time I spent with them, gave me some of the fondest memories of my past year.

A view of the UEA campus from the lake.

After that, I intended to spend the final 6 months somewhere like Cornwall. However, due to budgeting and a large number of pre-existing commitments outside of Cornwall, it became less workable. I also had issues finding accommodation for the right length of time, with good internet access. So in the end, I only completed the first half of my DN plan – 6 months in Norwich, after which I returned home to complete the rest of my degree.

Based on my brief experience of being a student DN, I have put together a list of advice, along with some benefits and disadvantages of choosing this lifestyle for studying.

Advice

  • Choose your course carefully. Does your course incorporate any practical modules, where you may need to attend the uni to complete them (i.e. for lab work, or workshops)? Can you fit those requirements around your plans? Also look at the cost of tuition fees and see whether you can afford them. If not, would you need to apply for a government loan, and if so, will the government actually fund your course? Also bear in mind that the SLC won’t fund your course, if you plan to travel outside the UK.
  • Create a budget! Then re-check it multiple times. Some of the things to think about:
    • Tuition fees and resources (including course books)
    • Rent & bills
    • Initial rent fees – you might be asked to put down 1 or 2 month’s rent as a deposit, and may also have to pay for referencing and administration fees
    • Grocery shopping
    • Transportation costs. If you drive, don’t forget things like insurance, road tax, MOTs, servicing, fuel and general repairs
    • Phone contract or pay as you go top-ups
    • Socialising (i.e. society socials, pub crawls etc.)
    • Gym membership
    • Cost of joining clubs and societies
    • Netflix and other memberships
    • Other costs like clothes shopping and birthday and Christmas presents
    • The unforeseeable. There are bound to be costs you haven’t anticipated. Do you have spare money that you could use if/when they arise?
  • Sign up to SCONUL. If you’re in the UK and if you’re eligible, you can sign up to SCONUL, which will give you access to a large number of university libraries across the UK. I highly recommend this. I used SCONUL to study at three different university libraries during the year. It’s free and straightforward to do.
  • Work schedule. Try create a basic work schedule and try stick to it. With online courses, you have to be very disciplined to get work done!
  • Apply for a University Student Card. If you enrol for your course and you aren’t sent a student card automatically, it’s worth contacting the administration team and asking if they can send you one. You might be able to get discounts at certain places by using your university student card.
  • Discounts. A student railcard and an NUS card may come in useful.
  • Research and visit your accommodation. If you’re planning on spending a fair amount of time somewhere, try arrange a viewing before deciding on accommodation as you’ll get a better feel for a place.
  • What resources will you need for your course? Will a laptop suffice, or would a tablet also be of use? Check in advance with your course leader if you need to. Also, remember to budget for these resources and any course books you might need.
  • See if you can join uni clubs and societies. If you’re planning on moving to be closer to a particular university and if you plan on staying there for a fair length of time, see if you can join their clubs and societies. You might be asked to pay an ‘Associate Membership’ fee, after which time you may be able to join the clubs and societies. I felt a bit rude just signing up to clubs and societies, as I wasn’t a student at UEA, so I e-mailed each club individually and explained who I was and that I’d paid the associate membership fee, and asked if they’d be ok with me joining their society. This also gives you a point of contact when you attend the first club/society event.
  • Research other non-uni groups you can join. Moving to a new town or city, where you don’t know anyone can be challenging. Initially, you’ll probably be too excited to notice, but after a while of working on your own you begin to miss social contact. There are apps like ‘Meet-up’, which can help. There are also a range of DN apps, as well as dedicated DN groups on social media.
  • Remember you’re a DN! This might sound silly, but I got so drawn into my work that weeks and months went past, before I actually explored the places I wanted to see in Norwich and Norfolk.
  • Pre-existing commitments. Think about whether you have any pre-existing commitments, such as holidays or concerts etc. Factor this in to your schedule, and plan your workload around them accordingly. Also make sure you’ve included enough money in your budget for any pre-existing commitments.
  • Pack practically. If you’re planning on moving around frequently, it’s worth thinking about exactly what you’ll need to take with you. You don’t want to have to buy stuff that you already own, but you also don’t want to lug around stuff that you probably could do without. Also think about how you’re going to move things from A to B.
The Norfolk Broads.

Benefits of being a Student DN

  • Study from anywhere in the world, as long as you have an internet connection (although if you’re applying for a student loan, check the terms and conditions, as you may be limited to studying in that country).
  • Living and exploring somewhere that appeals to you.
  • Fit your studying around your lifestyle.
  • If you’re in the UK, you have access to loads of university libraries through SCONUL.
  • Meeting new people in the place you move to, as well as through your course.
  • Online learning environments are usually pretty straightforward to use.
  • Freedom and independence.
  • Developing a whole host of important skills, including self-discipline and self-motivation.

Disadvantages of being a Student DN

  • Budgeting and money. Depending on where you move to, it could be quite an expensive adventure.
  • Not being able to see your actual course mates and just going for a drink together.
  • Can be difficult to meet new people if there’s not many societies/clubs around that you like, or can afford. This could lead to…
  • Loneliness.
  • You need to be self-motivated.
  • Time management. Try and stick to your planned work schedule.
  • Other people may have a negative opinion of your degree, because it’s an online course and therefore it may not hold the same weight as a traditional degree in their eyes.
  • If you plan on travelling around, think about whether you’re the type of person who feels happy making acquaintances and losing them (in a sense), when you move on to the next destination. And then repeating the process all over again.

If you’d like another view on the lifestyle, here’s a blog from another student DN. If you’re interested in finding out more about digital nomads in general, this article might be of interest.